Space; the next frontier – now at the mainframe computing moment

There were two Tweets about satellites in my newsfeed this morning. Usually there aren’t any.

The first was an Economist article about nano-satellites describing how satellites are getting smaller and cheaper. Remember what that did to the computer market? We could well be on the brink of something similarly transformational in satellites. Nano-satellites weigh as little as a few kilos and are ‘thousands of times cheaper’ than their larger brethren, and launch costs are falling rapidly too (the article doesn’t provide detail on the speed with which launch costs are falling, but I guess they correlate with weight). Nano-satellites are less capable, or course, but can still do useful tasks.

And as with computers declining cost has resulted in increased unit volumes. Around 1,000 large operational satellites are circling the earth, and in the last year they have been joined by around 100 nano-satellites. And 1,000 more nano-satellites are expected over the next five years.

In rough summary, costs have fallen by around three orders of magnitude and number of new satellites in the next five years will be roughly equal to total the number previously launched (forgetting about satellites that have been launched but are no longer operational).

If I was to map this to the computing industry I would say costs and unit volumes are comparable with somewhere in the late 1950s, the first decade of the mainframe era. In 1953 it was estimated there were 100 computers in the world.

You have probably guessed where I’m going with this – we could be on the cusp of a wave of satellite based innovation, and if so there will be startups… I don’t think satellites will be as transformative to society as computers, but it could nonetheless be powerful. It’s true that it’s difficult to envisage what that transformation might look like, but then the same was true of computers in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Bill Gates said he wanted to put a computer in every home, and even then people thought he was crazy.

The second piece of news was that Google has bought nano-satellite company Skybox for a rumoured $1.2bn. It seems they are thinking along the same lines I am and that space is the next frontier. (I wanted space to be the final frontier, but if space is next, then I think the human body, or maybe human brain, will be the final frontier.)